Revisiting Shibboleths of Race and Urban Economy: Black Employment in Manufacturing and the Public Sector Compared, Chicago 1950–2000


Despite a singular focus on the linked fate of blacks and manufacturing in many accounts of race and urban economy, black workers in Chicago have relied upon the public sector as a critical route to economic security throughout much of the twentieth century. Four significant trends are identified for the period between 1950 and 2000: (1) African Americans were disproportionately concentrated in the public sector — to a greater degree than in manufacturing; (2) both blacks and whites were disproportionately concentrated in manufacturing — blacks only slightly more; (3) Latinos were most disproportionately concentrated in manufacturing yet experienced no aggregate losses over the 50‐year period; (4) the disproportionate decline in black male public employment during the 1990s is a marked break from past sector trends of black male employment growth and stability. These findings emphasize the need to reassess the role of the public sector — the postwar economy’s ‘other’ high wage, unionized sector — in racialized accounts of urban economic restructuring. Recognizing the public sector as not only the most pronounced black employment niche, but also as a labor market standards‐setter, sharpens our understanding of the racialized impacts of contemporary public employment trends (e.g. privatization) linked to neoliberal political shifts in urban governance.